Priest slams 'pitiful' lack of Catholic fundraising for residential school survivors

A Catholic priest is speaking out against his own church, saying he's ashamed it used a legal "loophole" to escape its $25-million promise to residential school survivors.

Saskatchewan's 5 bishops have agreed to resume fundraising, while dozens elsewhere remain silent

Retired Catholic priest and Order of Canada recipient André Poilièvre says he is disgusted by the church's lack of fundraising for residential school survivors over the past 15 years. (Don Somers/CBC)

A Catholic priest is speaking out against his own church, saying he's ashamed it used a legal "loophole" to escape its $25-million promise to residential school survivors.

"It's scandalous, really shameful," said Saskatoon priest and Order of Canada recipient André Poilièvre.

"It was a loophole. It might be legal, but it's not ethical."

In the landmark 2005 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, the Catholic church first agreed to make a lump $29-million cash payment, and did pay most of that. It also agreed to provide $25 million of "in-kind services." Officials say that was fulfilled, although the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops declined to provide a list of those services to CBC News. Some critics also questioned why the perpetrator was allowed to provide in-kind services to the victims.

The third Catholic church promise was to give its "best efforts" at fundraising $25 million for survivors.

After a decade, more than $21 million of that fundraising commitment remained unpaid. All other churches involved in the settlement — United, Anglican and Presbyterian — paid their full shares without incident.

Several years after the settlement, the federal government asked the church to pay. The church's legal team instead went to court and pointed to the "best efforts" clause, saying the church had tried its best. On July 16, 2015, a judge agreed and absolved the church of its legal obligation.

In an interview, Poilièvre said he was disgusted with the church's meagre fundraising effort, the "unethical" legal manoeuvring to get out of it, and the fact more than $290 million was committed to cathedral and church construction across Canada during this time.

"It's pitiful," he said. "I think money should be spent on people first, and buildings and cathedrals last."

The $128-million renovation to St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica in Toronto was completed in September 2016, one year after Catholic Church groups told a judge that $3.9 million was all they could fundraise nationally for Canada's residential school survivors. (St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica/Facebook)

Poilièvre said he welcomed this week's announcement of local fundraising for survivors by Saskatchewan's five bishops — even if it is 16 years late. But he noted dozens of other bishops across Canada have remained silent this week on the money question.

"As a Catholic church, we were responsible. We need a collective, corporate response," Polièvre said. "We were complicit with the government in the design, the implementation and the management of these schools."

Poilièvre, 85, has seen the legacy of residential schools and its devastating impact on Indigenous families. In 1978, frustrated with the church's and society's treatment of Indigenous people, he threw his white clerical collar into a trash can and moved to Yellowknife. He then worked for co-operative businesses in more than 30 Indigenous communities.

"I wanted to learn, and they taught me so much," Poilièvre said.

Six years later, he returned to Saskatoon and resumed work as a priest, but insisted everyone call him only by his first name. He's now worked for decades with thousands of inmates and former gang members through the group he founded, STR8 UP.

"I am not Indigenous, but I identify more with Indigenous people than with the church, to be honest," he said.

Poilièvre and others say the Catholic Church's structure is a big part of the problem.

In many ways, the church is hierarchical and synchronized, they say. From the top, the Vatican dictates the rituals of the mass, the rules for living and the belief system. From the bottom, the Vatican receives revenue from each individual region or diocese.

Poilièvre told CBC News he is anxious to get back to working with inmates when COVID-19 restrictions are lifted in Saskatchewan this weekend. He said the high percentage of incarcerated Indigenous people is part of the legacy of Canada's residential school system. (Don Somers/CBC)

But when it comes to compensating residential school survivors, producing documentation of unmarked grave sites, revealing the names of abuser priests or securing a Papal apology on Canadian soil, Poilièvre and others argue the top levels suddenly deny all responsibility. Each diocese acts as an independent legal and financial unit.

"The Catholic Church has organized itself very deliberately this way to avoid corporate responsibility," said Thomas McMahon, former lead counsel for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"Governments could easily pass a law saying, 'Yes, Catholic Church, you are a legal corporate entity.' But our politicians are too afraid of Catholic voters. They let the Catholic Church play this game."

McMahon said the Catholic Church hired a "bazillion" lawyers at every stage, from compensation to a simple document request by survivors or the TRC. No other church group did that, he said.

"It's so obvious that was the strategy," he said.

Michele Dillon, who has authored four books about Catholicism, says the Catholic Church is 'still struggling to find ways to hold people accountable and to make reparations' in Canada and around the world. (University of New Hampshire)

Michele Dillon, a University of New Hampshire professor who has written four books about Catholicism, said the church is in crisis. Dillon, McMahon and others say the church's recent abuse and financial scandals are compounded by coverup, denial and broken promises.

"It's certainly regrettable that the church is still struggling to find ways to hold people accountable and to make reparations," Dillon said.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) declined an interview request. An official said they don't have the authority to speak on behalf of individual bishops.

CBC News also asked the CCCB whether any bishops outside Saskatchewan have committed to further raising money for residential school survivors. The official said it's "outside the mandate" of the CCCB to ask its members questions on behalf of outside organizations.

Poilièvre called that response typical and said he wants it to change. That change, he said, can start with all Canadian bishops agreeing to get that $21 million to survivors.

"It didn't happen then, but it needs to happen now," he said. "The effort wasn't there. The commitment wasn't there. The energy wasn't there. Hopefully it will be now."


Jason Warick


Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.